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 Four Trowels

A DARKER GOD

By: Barbara Cleverly
Bantam Books:  New York
2010 (PB)

Barbara Cleverly’s third Laetitia Talbot novel continues the extremely high quality plotting and narration begun in The Tomb of Zeus and Bright Hair about the Bone.  This novel works well on so many levels.  It is a taut historical mystery, set in and around Athens, Greece, c. 1928, that deftly incorporates real characters and events (Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos of Greece and his glamorous wife Helena and the ethnic cleansing and “expatriation” of more than two million Greeks and Turks under the post World War I Treaty of Lausanne) with her fictional character creations and a fictional plot to de-stabilize the Greek Government that was still in disarray with a royalists still aching to bring back the monarchy. 

A prologue concerning the return of King Agamemnon from the siege of Troy and the activities of the dilettante George the Second, exiled King of the Helenes in Post WWI London provide seemingly unrelated introductions to the main plot line which follows Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Percy Montacute, a Classicist by academic training, secondment to Athens to train the police force there in modern police strategies.  He is convinced he is being shuffled off to the ends of the earth to essentially block any chances he might have to rise in the Yard’s exclusive hierarchy. 

While playing the tourist at the Athens Museum, he meets Col (ret) Andrew Merriman, an old war comrade and now professor of Classics and Archaeology.  Merriman is engaged in a new translation of the tragic history of Agamemnon and the House of Atreus, authored by Aeschylus.  It is Merriman’s desire to stage the play at the Theatre of Dionysus in hopes of renovating the classic Greek site.  Merriman recruits Montacute to play the Leader of the Greek Chorus and it is under these circumstances that he meets Laetitia (Letty) Talbot, erstwhile archaeologist under the tutelage of Andrew Merriman, and her ever present companion (lover?), William Gunning.  It is, in fact, Merriman who guided Letty to direct her first dig, an adventure described in the earlier volume, The Tomb of Zeus.  He is also introduced to a wide array of characters who are involved in the production, including Merriman’s daunting wife, Maude, and her cousin, the lovely and bewitching young actress, Thetis Templeton.   

The stage production proceeds apace towards the opening night, which is to feature the presence of Prime Minister Venizelos and his wife, when Andrew Merriman is brutally murdered at rehearsal and his body is substituted for the manikin that was to represent the murdered Agamemnon.  The production and the cast and crew are thrown into an uproar of confusion, and that is magnified when in short order Maude Merriman plunges to her death but whispers the name of her assailant to Inspector Montacute:  “Thetis Templeton.”—Maude’s cousin! 

What follows is a grand murder mystery in the best Golden Age style, one of which Agatha Christie or Josephine Tey or Dorothy Sayers would be proud.  Are the murders part of a wider political plot?  Are the murders tied to the fact that both Letty and Thestis were lovers of Andrew Merriman?   Why has Merriman bequeathed a sizeable piece of property in Salonika and a mysterious chest containing artifacts relating to Philip of Macedon, Olympias, and Alexander the Great to Letty?  Why does Letty seem to be in the cross-hairs of men who appear intent to remove her from the scene permanently? 

Barbara Cleverly dangles these and other tantalizing questions as she leads the reader on a merry chase through the byzantine halls of British diplomacy and spycraft as well as the ancient hill country of rural Greece.  Not until the cast and crew, less the unfortunate murder victims, reassemble to finally perform Aeschylus before the political elite of Greece, are the red herrings dismissed, the mysteries solved and the dark secrets of the dark god of the play, Dionysus finally revealed.  This is a wonderful novel, replete with memorable characters and a complex plot of political intrigue and personal vendetta and a reminder of the great truths still to be discovered within the structures of classical Greek drama and poetry. 

Four enthusiastic trowels for Barbara Cleverly’s third Letty Talbot mystery—may there be many more to come!      

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.